philosophy

On Bricolage

I came across the idea of bricolage in Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play: Improvisation in LIfe and Art, where he describes the bricoleur as an artist of limits, making do with whatever is at hand. I related immediately to this with regard to my cooking and my radio work, in which I aim to create the best possible combination of a given set of ingredients or sounds. However, thinking about it more, I saw that it could apply to all of my creative endeavors.

I remember being moved by a French film called Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse, in English translated to The Gleaners and I, when it came out in 2000. The film, by Agnès Varda, follows those who glean for food out of poverty, but also features those who glean for fun or as a political statement and artists who base their work on found objects. I wasn’t sure at the time why this movie so resonated for me, but I believe now that it kindled my incipient appreciation for and understanding of the connection between the artistry and ethic of using what others leave behind.

In many ways, I see bricolage as trial and experimentation instead of predetermined linear procedure. Like gleaning, bricolage holds an assumption of possibility, no matter how barren one’s environment may seem. It also teaches, and requires, flexibility. I needed this technique while living in other countries, far from the usual pacifying material comforts of the US. There was a joke circulating among fellow Peace Corps volunteers that instead of seeing the glass half full or half empty, the Peace Corps volunteer would see the glass and exclaim, “Hey, I could take a shower in that!” It is in the spirit of bricolage that I included images from my dance improvisation sessions in my MFA portfolio and that, in my writing, I often jump back and forth between prose and verse depending on which seems a better tool for expressing the meaning I am trying to convey.

I also realize now the connection between my style of bricolage and my philosophy of non-waste, the value I place on conserving the Earth’s resources and using only what is needed. Taking the example of cooking, approaching making a meal with the lens of bricolage means that I will open the refrigerator, open the cabinet and see what ingredients are available and at their peak of readiness. Creating a meal from those, going to the store for a supplementary ingredient only if no imaginable substitute is present, creates much less waste than the alternative approach of first imagining a meal, then going to the store with a set list of ingredients and quantities, purchasing those without regard to freshness or cost, and meanwhile letting what is already present in the kitchen spoil or grow stale. By developing an awareness of the potentials of existing ingredients and imagining how they might combine in new ways, I create a meal or dish that I usually find tastier, or at least more interesting, than the alternative, too. I just have to be open to new experiences.

The Cartesian Paradigm

I arrived at my MFA studies at Goddard College interested in the paradox between simplicity and complexity. In the past I had considered some ways of life simple, others complex. I had often thought of improvising as simple, following rules as complex. Then, from my own experience and learning about the emerging field of complexity science, I saw that the seemingly simple could be complex, and the seemingly complex, simple. The real complexity lay not in order or disorder, not on one end of the spectrum or the other, but rather, in the messy, in-between regions.

When I read in Morris Berman’s The Reenchantment of the World about the idea of the Cartesian split, I said, “Aha! This is what I’ve been running away from since college, this overemphasis on reason, this denigrating of body wisdom and connection to nature. And this is what I want to try to heal in my life work, my teaching, my artwork.”

I still think one of my primary intentions is to heal the Cartesian split, the division between mind and body, reason and intuition. I identify with the term “Post-Cartesian.” But I know that even that understanding is an oversimplification.

As Iain McGilchrist has noted, both hemispheres of the brain are involved in reason and emotion. According to him, while the left hemisphere narrows things down to a certainty, the right hemisphere opens them up to possibility. Western culture has privileged left hemisphere thinking over right, he asserts, dividing, categorizing, and conquering over understanding the greater meaning. This is an argument that resonates with me much like the idea of the Cartesian paradigm. Let’s heal this split, I say, be it between the hemispheres or between reason/analysis and body/intuition. Let us see what connects, as well as what divides.

On Dance

“Truly accurate perception depends upon maintaining contact with the biological core, for only then can one return to it at will, that is, abandon control and merge with the object.” —Morris Berman, describing Wilhelm Reich’s idea of the healthy personality in The Reenchantment of the World

“Movement is not only essential for man….It is a balance wheel for his emotional equilibrium.” —Grace Nash

Artist Statement

I am a singer-songwriter, a radio artist, a writer. A teacher, an interviewer, a dancer, a cook. Voice is a central theme and instrument for me, an embodiment of the human potential to resonate by interweaving our own harmonies in the world’s existing layers of sound. A much-migrated bricoleur, I am aware of many ways of being and aim to use what the universe presents as responsibly and beautifully as possible.

In my life and work I try to embody the fullness of human potential, drawing equally from reason, intuition, and experience. In this I have been inspired by Morris Berman’s call to re-enchant the world, Jean Houston’s urging for us to reach our full human capacities, and David Abram’s urging for us to renew our connection to ecology and the sensuous world.

As an interdisciplinary artist with an affinity for nonlinearity, I rely less on rules of individual disciplines than on feeling out the gray areas to give voice to that which is less often heard. Often, I use the technique of bricolage, improvising within the limits of what is available. Valuing and transforming existing possibilities in this way aligns with my belief in using our planet’s resources effectively and efficiently, taking only what is required. I believe that bricolage reflects an openness to what the universe presents, and a recognition of human agency as only part of the larger picture. My tendency to intersperse poetry with prose is an example of how I work within the confines of the written word to embrace sensory experience as well as analysis and combine styles that are usually kept separate.

In radio and writing, I straddle the line between art and journalism, seeking to communicate clearly with others but also rooting much of my expression in sensory impression and personal experience. I enjoy asking difficult questions and am always looking to clarify. However, I am not searching for a missing piece to a linear puzzle with a known outcome; I prefer to dig deeper, diving into unknown waters in the hopes of finding treasure.

Juxtaposing multiple perspectives is one way I forge connection with readers and listeners but also challenge them to see their individual viewpoint as only one of many possible ways of looking at the world. Leaving audio and written storytelling somewhat open to interpretation, I feel, allows for a more productive collaboration between artist and audience than straightforward reporting. It is this same possibility-opening balance between rules and freedom, fixity and flow, with which I approach my teaching. In the classroom, I prefer to inspire than instruct, to gaze outward with a wide lens than categorize or pinpoint. It is my hope that imparting in students, like readers and listening audiences, an appreciation of complexity and nuance, will help create more engaged, empathetic members of society.

I see the personal and subjective as richest ground for resonance with others, a lens to the universal. My experiences living in less developed countries on three continents have been influential in my understanding of cultural difference, my own culture, and myself. I consider different ways of life as lenses that help me to see my own culture more clearly and guide my choices for how to live. Travel has given me new understandings through different languages, divergent senses of time, and other, otherwise inaccessible experiences that have guided and continue to serve as inspiration for my work.

No longer bouncing between continents, I now seek to maintain my ability to shift seamlessly between modes of being, crossing boundaries of other kinds than the geographical and bringing the richness of the in-between spaces to light.

(Asheville, 2012)

Guitar Making: The Human Element

A new audio documentary about luthier Scott MacDonald of Huntington, NY.

Internationally renowned guitar builder (luthier) Scott MacDonald of Huntington, New York says that his work is essentially a human art. Scott is different from most guitar makers in that he doesn’t produce models, doesn’t believe in reproducing the same instrument. Instead, he builds custom instruments, uniquely designed to fit the needs of each person – physically, musically, and personality-wise.

Scott is skilled at picking up cues about people. In fact, sometimes he can tell what a person he’s just met does just by the sound of their voice or their posture. And when he creates a guitar for someone, he is guided by feeling and impression more than the specifics of his craft. Listen to him share his philosophy on guitar making and hear his people skills at work in this non-narrated documentary including wood, workshop, and musical sounds from his finished and unfinished guitars.